Using Artificial Intelligence for Process Improvement

James McKenna, CIO, Fenwick & West
James McKenna, CIO, Fenwick & West

James McKenna, CIO, Fenwick & West

Sometimes the best way to improve a complex operation is to make many small adjustments, watch what happens, and repeat. At work, at home and at play, we work through patterns that are both mostly predictable and manageable. When a different result is necessary, we change a variable in the equation and see what happens.

That is called process improvement, and things get interesting when you add artificial intelligence to the mix. AI has become available to the masses through various tools and gives peoplethe ability to observe and make improvements in realtime. This article looks at how, where and why AI can make a difference in improving your specific process.

Why does AI make a difference in process improvement?

The simple answer is that it can monitor and adjust to many more variables and data points faster, objectively and more consistently than people can. The more AI learns, the more it can act and predict outcomes to subsequent changes. This rapid iteration allows people to see how something in production can be improved, forecast the effects of change, and identify where there are bottlenecks or resource constraints.

Additionally, AI provides leaders with facts, trends and insights. Facts and objectivity help leaders make better decisions, prioritize actions and determine if an additional cost is worth the improvement.

  AI is a great candidate for those situations because it can objectively look at a constraint and weigh many iterations of options to help determine the best remediation  

Can AI help with bottlenecks and resource constraints?

Yes. AI can help monitor and optimize a documented process. It can show where in the process the timesinks, and the effects and costs of modification are in pursuit of greater efficiency, volume or quality. In assessing each of the different parts of the equation, it may become very clear there are sections that take a lot of time but are repetitive in nature. AI also helps people compare the results of multiple configurations. When working to improve efficiency, many small enhancements are as valuable as one large one.

What can AI do to help me manage my work in progress?

AI can also help you determine which endeavors require more effort and specialized knowledge. With this ability, it becomes possible to examine your current work in progress and see if there will be additional assistance necessary as it moves down the line. It’s entirely possible to optimize a portion of your process which may help you see that additional effort will be needed on downstream needs. Occasionally, client requirements change midstream.

What happens if the client’s needs or a change of process needs to occur?

AI is a great candidate for those situations because it can objectively look at a constraint and weigh many iterations of options to help determine the best remediation. It is not difficult to update the AI components of your process and immediately see their effects. Bottlenecks and resource constraints can be improved by three general strategies:

1. Identify what can be improved and make that change;

2.Allocate additional resources;

3.Reengineer the overall process so the bottleneck is eliminated.

AI can dive deeper on those items and help people see where the highest return will come from an investment.

Sounds interesting, but how about a real-world example?

I work for a service provider that offers bespoke solutions to unique clients. On the surface, it does not sound like a place where process improvement would thrive as every deliverable is a one-off solution. The reality is that what is eventually presented to the client is unique to their situation. Parts of what led up to its creation are very similar from client to client. Aspects of marketing, conflict checking, risk management, account creation, records management, security and information technology are consistent from client to client. Having clearly documented linear and inter-related processes which can be automated and measured is a great start and can make a huge difference. We’ve been using AI-based tools for over three years now and it has helped tremendously.

How can AI make a notable difference?

Once “trained,” AI will do a very thorough and consistent job of helping people check contracts and compliance requirements, identify ambiguous or disadvantageous clauses and terms, ensure consistency of word choice, set things up correctly the first time and help minimize unnecessary exceptions, among many other possibilities. We’re using specific tools that utilize AI to speed and optimize efficiencies in everyday processes. In effect, the strategic use of AI improves the identification of problems, promotes consistency across actions and helps reduce corrective or reactive work.

What are the net effects?

As a service provider, we can deliver something with less effort and greater accuracy. The client receives a higher-quality solution in a very timely manner. Both benefit from knowing each other that much better and having a greater understanding of what we each need to be successful. Both have greater confidence that the next engagement will be successful as well.

People ask, “What will AI do to us?” A better question I argue is “What can AI do for us?” AI is a perfectly viable tool to help an entity recognize patters, optimize a process, free up talent to work on non-repetitive tasks, and help people make decisions on verifiable facts. It does take some effort to train the system and help it adjust to changing customer needs, but the gains in efficiency are worth it.

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